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California

California

California earns a C for its civil forfeiture laws:

Standard of Proof

Higher bar to forfeit in limited cases: Weak conviction provision falls short of criminal forfeiture (see “The Problem with ‘Conviction Requirements’”). It applies only if an owner contests forfeiture, putting the burden on owners to engage in a costly legal battle and making it easy for the government to forfeit without a conviction. It does not require conviction of the owner, only of “a defendant,” and does not apply to cash over $40,000. Once there is a conviction, property must be linked to the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard for cash over $40,000 is clear and convincing evidence if contested. For uncontested forfeitures, the government need only present a “prima facie case” that property is subject to forfeiture—a very low standard akin to probable cause.

Innocent Owner Burden

Stronger protections for the innocent: The government must prove third-party owners knew about criminal activity connected to their property.

Financial Incentive

Large profit incentive: 76% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement (65% to police, 10% to prosecutors and 1% to a fund controlled by the prosecutors’ trade association).

The letter grade reflects the state’s forfeiture laws as of December 2020. When we become aware of relevant reforms, we are updating the standard of proof, innocent owner burden and financial incentive language above, but we are not updating the letter grade.

Recent Reforms

  • (2016) SB 443: Raised standard of proof; created weak conviction provision; imposed new limits on participation in federal equitable sharing.

Recommendations

  • End civil forfeiture
  • Direct all forfeiture proceeds to a non-law enforcement fund
  • Fully close the equitable sharing loophole
  • Strengthen transparency and accountability requirements

State and Federal Forfeiture Revenues, 2000-2019

Between 2002 and 2018, California law enforcement agencies forfeited more than $440 million under state law. Between 2000 and 2019, they generated an additional $1.3 billion from federal equitable sharing, for a total of at least $1.7 billion in forfeiture revenue. California ranks 49th for its participation in the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program. However, in 2016, the state prohibited agencies from receiving federal proceeds unless forfeited property is cash worth more than $40,000.

At least $1.7 billion in state and federal forfeiture revenue
2000–2019

Year California Forfeiture Revenues Dept. of Justice Equitable Sharing Proceeds Treasury Equitable Sharing Proceeds Total
2000 Unknown $29,532,158 $17,368,000 $46,900,158
2001 Unknown $32,530,454 $6,818,000 $39,348,454
2002 $25,565,686 $26,435,779 $4,573,000 $56,574,465
2003 $26,589,893 $24,259,920 $2,224,000 $53,073,813
2004 $22,459,346 $30,972,798 $2,247,000 $55,679,144
2005 $19,866,810 $26,389,562 $4,846,000 $51,102,372
2006 $25,582,483 $41,901,452 $1,080,000 $68,563,935
2007 $27,603,822 $42,226,537 $5817,000 $75,647,359
2008 $25,548,228 $51,699,292 $9,482,000 $86,729,520
2009 $28,789,945 $59,308,447 $3,440,000 $91,538,392
2010 $16,490,185 $75,504,012 $9,660,000 $101,654,197
2011 $17,958,201 $78,895,461 $10,561,000 $107,414,662
2012 $15,046,570 $82,987,480 $17,264,000 $115,298,050
2013 $28,130,455 $85,544,380 $12,347,000 $126,021,835
2014 $29,148,436 $77,400,978 $12,216,000 $118,765,414
2015 $29,171,690 $86,111,035 $13,848,000 $129,130,725
2016 $37,915,514 $77,612,180 $10,915,000 $126,442,694
2017 $33,699,286 $48,670,360 $8295,000 $90,664,646
2018 $30,438,026 $55,219,133 $53,366,000 $139,023,159
2019 Unavailable $41,295,148 $10,023,000 $51,318,148
Totals $440,004,576 $1,074,496,566 $216,390,000 $1,730,891,142

All revenue figures include both civil and criminal forfeitures. Revenues are not adjusted for inflation.

California's Forfeiture Transparency and Accountability Report Card

Tracking Seized Property

D

Accounting for Forfeiture Fund Spending

F

Statewide Forfeiture Reports

B

Accessibility of Forfeiture Records

B

Penalties for Failure to File a Report

D

Financial Audits of Forfeiture Accounts

C

For full transparency and accountability grades, visit www.ij.org/TransparencyReportCards.

Forfeitures Under California Law: Key Facts

Median Value

UNKNOWN

California does not report property-level data necessary to calculate median forfeiture value.

Property Types

UNKNOWN

California does not report the types of property forfeited.

Civil vs. Criminal

UNKNOWN

California does not report whether forfeitures are processed under civil or criminal forfeiture law.

Expenditures

UNKNOWN

California does not report how forfeiture funds are spent.

Data Notes and Legal Sources

Data Notes

Forfeiture reports are from the California Attorney General’s website. Figures represent net forfeiture revenues and are based on the calendar year in which revenues were disbursed. Equitable sharing data are from DOJ’s and Treasury’s annual forfeiture reports. Due to differences in reporting and accounting practices, state figures may not match aggregate numbers produced by the state or cover the same 12-month period as the federal data.

Legal Sources

Standard of proof: Weak conviction provision does not require conviction of an owner, but only of “a defendant”—and only for forfeitures of cash and cash equivalents less than $40,000, vehicles and real property and only when a claim is filed. After the conviction provision is satisfied, property must be linked to the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

For contested forfeitures of cash over $40,000, the standard is clear and convincing evidence. In uncontested forfeitures, the government need only make a “prima facie case”—a very low standard akin to probable cause—that the property is subject to forfeiture.

Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 11488.4(i)(1)–(4), .5(b)(1). See also People v. $9,632.50 in U.S. Currency, 75 Cal. Rptr. 2d 125, 128 n.4 (Ct. App. 1998) (saying the standard of proof “in this case” for cash worth less than $25,000 is beyond a reasonable doubt).

Innocent owner burden: Government.

Cal. Health & Safety Code § 11488.5(d).

Financial incentive: 76% (65% to police, 10% to prosecutors, 1% to a fund controlled by prosecutors).

Cal. Health & Safety Code § 11489(b)(2).

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